The moment you try to better yourself beyond your closed circle, people try to stop you. In Rita’s case it’s her husband Denny who wants his wife off the pill and doing his bidding. But Rita has seen a glimmer of light. There is a whole world of literature out there to expand her mind. So, she does something about it.
26-year-old hairdresser Rita, in her shiny, primary colours and with a great scouse gob on her, enrols for the Open University. Her assigned tutor, Frank, is a drunken divorcee in brown corduroy jacket and Hush Puppies who needs the money to pay for his booze. He looks as if he’s just got out of bed … and is planning to return there very shortly … via the pub. Surely, they can’t get on?
It’s 40 years since Willy Russel gave up hairdressing himself and wrote “Educating Rita”. And whilst Life and the Open University have moved on (not necessarily for the better) the themes of this funny and fascinating play still hurt. Bettering yourself can be a lonely business. You leave the security of those you have know all your youth and enter a new world where you don’t know the landscape or the rules…and most likely make a prat of yourself.
Rita makes loveable mistakes. Discussing poetry, Frank asks, “Do you know Yates”. “You mean the Wine Lodge?” she replies. She’s so desperate to learn she invites him to see a production of “The Importance of Being Whatshisname”. And after an evening watching the Scottish Play, asserts critically that “Mrs Macbeth is a complete cow”. When Franks asks her to write an essay of solving the complexities of staging ‘Peer Gynt’, she write a one line reply; “Do it on the radio” (which is one of my most favourite theatrical lines). Later, she ducks out of Frank’s party invite because she doesn’t know what to wear and think’s she brought the wrong colour wine. Oh! the insecurity of immaturity.
Frank also has problems, not all of which emerge from a bottle of ‘Bells.’ He thinks he’s an appalling poet and appalling teacher and only gets away with it because most of his students are appalling as well. He’s resigned to making conveyor belt people produce format essays that peddle tired old academic opinions rather than their own. But Rita is fresh and bouncy and is amazed to discover she has opinions of her own. “I’m not used to thinking like this”, she says. Slowly their insecurities coalesce. And the question is : who’s educating who?
As you may have surmised, the original stage version of “Educating Rita” is a two-hander demanding excellent and exquisite acting …and it gets it. The stars of the film version – Michael Caine and Julie Walters – are completely side-lined by two of the very best actors the New Vic has brought us in recent years.
Andrew Pollard is so shambling and under-stated as geriatric hippie, Frank. He does a nice line in being bemused and is even better at playing drunk… something which is never easy for an actor to do. He’s got the very essence of a faded, tramlined, academic who is blown away by Rita’s fresh breeze. Lauryn Redding is simply terrific…and I’d venture to suggest she’s doing a Rita herself. I’ve only ever seen her in smaller, supporting roles before … but with her hair, bosom and dander up, she’s a real stage stomper who delivers her wise cracks with the air of Groucho Marks and manages audience expectation with the expertise of Billy Connolly. Surefootedly directed by Sarah Punshon, they really do Willy Russell proud.
There are productions of this venerable play still popping up all around the world, but few can be better than this.
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Photo : Darren Andrews